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Matsuev and Gergiev take on two Tchaikovsky concertos in a recent Mariinsky CD

Cover of the recording being discussed
Cover of the recording being discussed
courtesy of ClassicsOnline

Almost exactly a month ago, the Mariinsky label released a CD of concert performances of Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s first two piano concertos. These feature the Mariinsky Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev with soloist Denis Matsuev. Matsuev has become a frequent partner with Gergiev in concerto performances at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, and many of those performances have been released as Mariinsky recordings. For that matter, there is no shortage of recordings of the first concerto (Opus 23 in B-flat major), one of which is another Mariinsky recording of Gergiev performing with Daniil Trifonov. The second concerto (Opus 44 in G major), on the other hand, receives far less attention. During my student days, one was less likely to encounter it in a concert hall and more likely to find it performed by the pit orchestra of the New York City Ballet for George Balanchine’s “Ballet Imperial.”

Back in March of 2010, I was fortunate enough to encounter Gergiev and Matsuev performing together in concert. The occasion was a tour of the Mariinsky Orchestra that brought them to Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. Rather than performing one of Tchaikovsky’s concertos, however, they presented Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 30 in D minor, that third piano concerto that had been undeservedly escalated to a status of notoriety by the movie Shine. I was so put off by the impact of that film that I had even used a post to my Rehearsal Studio blog to explain why the concerto was not the monster that John Gielgud’s persuasive command of rhetoric had made it out to be. In that respect Matsuev and Gergiev were clearly of one mind in demonstrating that there was far more to the music in this concerto than overwhelming technical challenges.

In a similar vein Matsuev is not put off by the technical demands in either of the first two Tchaikovsky concertos. The problem seems quite the opposite. He is so comfortable with both of them that the sense of the music itself is lost through facility, rather than daunting physical demands. Even more problematic is that, in the face of that facility, Matsuev seems to have focused his attention on setting speed records. Particularly in the third movements of both concertos, he whips his way through all of the passages almost as if he feels driven to get to the final measure before Gergiev does.

One can appreciate the plight of a pianist who has had to perform (and probably record) Opus 23 too many times. Even the standing ovations end up contributing to the onset of burnout. Nevertheless, it is unfortunate that this understandable attitude toward Opus 23 should spill over into Opus 44. The concerto may receive less attention than Opus 23, but this has more to do with marketing strategies than the merits of the music itself. Opus 44 is a concerto that deserves some positive promotion, but I am afraid that this new recording does not provide it.